Latest update: December 29th, 2013
There have already been several reports of the ruckus that occurred during a talk entitled, “What Does it Mean to be Pro-Israel in America Today?” which was held at the 92nd St Y in Manhattan Monday night, Dec. 16.
But no accounts thus far examine the role of the audience in inciting a panelist to get up and walk out of the event.
There were first hand accounts by John Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary and the panelist who walked out of the event, and another by Jane Eisner, the editor of the Daily Forward, who was the moderator of the event.
The other two panelists were Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, and David Harris, president of the American Jewish Committee.
One account can be found on this website. Haaretz and the New York Times weighed in with their own versions, based, loosely, on the earlier accounts.
The rabidly anti-Israel blog Mondoweiss headlined the story “Podhoretz leaves 92nd St Y stage after saying Swarthmore Hillel deserves to be ‘spat on.'”
Over on planet Mondoweiss, the editor was so eager to prove his true lefty street creds he expressed outrage that the event was held without a single Palestinian Arab on the panel. He mused: “I wonder what liberal Jewish forum would have staged a debate on Jim Crow back in the ’60s without black leaders…” Earth to Mondoweiss: the topic for the evening was “What Does it Mean to be Pro-Israel in America Today?”
WHY AND WHEN DID PODHORETZ EXIT STAGE RIGHT
Podhoretz admits saying that the decision by the Swarthmore “Hillel” to vote itself out of Hillel so it could sponsor anti-Zionists was their right, just as it was his right to (rhetorically, he claims) “spit at” the Swarthmore (former) Hillel group. This was the topic of discussion by several commentators.
But that isn’t when Podhoretz left the stage.
According to the accounts of the two participants, Podhoretz became agitated during the discussion of the recent American Studies Association’s decision to boycott Israeli academic institutions.
What happened was that although all of the panelists said they disapproved of the ASA boycott, J Street’s Ben Ami then began recounting what he said were Israeli policies that led people to believe that a boycott of Israeli institutions was appropriate.
PODHORETZ DEFENDS ISRAEL, AUDIENCE EXPLODES, ‘ENRAGED’
“You’re blaming the victim!” Podhoretz exclaimed.
To which the 92nd Street Y audience erupted into loud booing.
According to the moderator, Eisner, who is much closer to Ben-Ami’s Israel viewpoint than the others – having served as a co-chair of her local New Israel Fund regional council – there was not just scattered booing. She wrote in her blog on the topic that when Podhoretz accused Ben-Ami of blaming the victim, some “members of the audience became enraged.”
The audience was so disruptive with what Podhoretz described as a “prolonged bout of booing,” that he turned to the audience and asked with what he thought was obvious irony, “why don’t you also hiss?”
Eisner did not understand that Podhoretz was being sarcastic. She wrote that “mystifyingly, the Commentary editor encouraged them, challenging them to boo and hiss.”
The audience also did not understand, or was not embarrassed by Podhoretz’s sarcastic effort to remind them they were adults listening to a panel discussion, not bloodthirsty members of a bullfight audience, howling for blood. We know they didn’t understand because their response was to hiss, along with the booing.
That appears to really be what tipped the balance.
It was with the audience hissing and booing, that Eisner claims Podhoretz raised his voice and wagged a finger at Ben-Ami. Eisner wrote: “That’s when I stepped in, trying to rein in the argument, using my hands (I am known to gesticulate) to try to calm him down.”
At that point, with Eisner trying to shush him – as Podhoretz experienced it – and the audience booing and hissing, the Commentary editor got up and walked out.
Whether Podhoretz’s behavior was out of line or understandable is probably impossible to judge, certainly not for anyone who wasn’t there, and maybe even for those who were. Given that Eisner herself wrote that members of the audience were “enraged” by Podhoretz’s defense of Israel from Ben-Ami’s criticism, perhaps that would have been the moment for her to “rein in” the crowd and lower the tension. Who knows?
But it is quite fascinating to learn that total bedlam broke out in the audience in response to Podhoretz’s defense of Israel from an attack blaming the Jewish State for the ASA’s boycott. That is the kind of thing one expects at a Students for Justice in Palestine event, not a talk held at what is ostensibly still a Jewish institution, one which began in 1874 as the Young Men’s Hebrew Association.
So a second question arises: was the 92nd Street Y audience so primed to take a position critical of Israel because of the kind of programming, including the anti-Israel speakers it has invited recently, some of whom are the biggest proponents of economic and legal warfare against Israel, Roger Waters and Alice Walker? Or were those speakers invited because the 92nd Street Y audience is one that was already primed to be critical of the Jewish State?
ORIGINAL EVENT SCHEDULED TO INCLUDE ONLY J STREET VIEW
And a final note of interest. When doing research about this panel discussion, a notice about the event turned up on the Internet that reveals something worth noting: apparently the topic was originally going to be addressed by only one speaker. Originally, the only person who was going to talk at the 92nd Street Y about what it means to be pro-Israel in America today was J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami.
The original blurb announcing the event read this way:
What does it mean for the American Jewish community to be pro-Israel? Is it acceptable for American Jews to criticize Israeli politics, as Israelis do? J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami joins us for a discussion of what it means to be pro-Israel in America. Jeremy Ben-Ami is Executive Director of J Street and JStreetPac, the political voice of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement. From 2003-4 he was Policy Director for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, and from 1992 through 1996, he worked for former President Bill Clinton, serving for two years as the President’s Deputy Domestic Policy Advisor.
That’s all the blurb said. No other panelists. One view, the J Street view. That’s what this event was supposed to be. One could be thankful someone had the wisdom to widen the panel to include a few more voices. And even so, both Podhoretz and Harris of the American Jewish Committee are much more domestic policy mavens than they are policy experts on Israel. But what does it say that an event at the 92nd Street Y about what constitutes pro-Israel in America was originally scheduled to include only one voice?
Sadly, it seems likely there would not have been any hissing or booing from the audience.Lori Lowenthal Marcus
About the Author: Lori Lowenthal Marcus is a contributor to the JewishPress.com. A graduate of Harvard Law School, she previously practiced First Amendment law and taught in Philadelphia-area graduate and law schools. You can reach her by email: Lori@JewishPressOnline.com
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